The Pearl and the Pumpkin is a 1904 children's book, written by Paul Clarendon West and W. W. Denslow, and illustrated by the latter. It was one of the more noteworthy attempts at literary imitation of L. Frank Baum's (and Denslow's) 1900 success The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
West and Denslow's book conformed to precedent: "the storyline would sweep mortals from an American farm to a magical land populated by fairies and comedic, grotesque figures."
It is the day of Halloween night. On the Pringle family farm in Vermont, seven-year-old Pearl Pringle watches her beloved ten-year-old cousin Joe Miller carve "Jack lanterns" in the pumpkin patch. Mr. Pringle has given the boy permission to carve all the pumpkins he wants, and twenty of the large gourds have now fallen under his knife. A local baker and a canner look on enviously; Pringle's farm is famous for its lush produce, and the two men are distressed at the waste of so much product.
A third critic soon appears: while the children bob for apples during a party that evening, the Ancient Mariner magically arises from the tub of water. He wants to learn Joe's secret to growing prize pumpkins where they never grew before; a hunger for pumpkin pies has spread all the way to Davy Jones's Locker. Joe, however, is reluctant to reveal his secret. Mariner, baker, and canner quickly form an alliance of mutual interest against young Joe.
The "half ghost" Mariner is not the only transmundane presence to manifest that night. A being called the Corn Dodger, a sort of patron spirit of farm produce, appears in the Pringle cornfield, and quickly falls in with the Mariner and his human henchmen (though the Dodger, whose body is a giant ear of corn, is very wary of the canner). On the opposite side, Mother Carey and her attendants appear to Joe and Pearl; the sea spirit offers Joe a magic shell, which he can use to summon her aid when needed.
The mariner connives with the Corn Dodger to overcome Joe's resistance to revealing his secret; they trick the boy into wishing himself a "pumpkinhead." He is instantly transformed into a strange being with a jack-o'-lantern head, a large pumpkin body, and leafy vines for limbs. The Mariner also manages to draw Joe and Pearl and the baker down into a magic spring, which transports them to the undersea realm of Davy Jones's Locker. (Through fairy magic, the humans can breathe, talk, and function underwater just as they do on the surface.)
The Corn Dodger, meanwhile, is pursued by the canner, Ike Cannem ("I can 'em"). In his attempts to evade canning, the Dodger also plunges to the depths of the sea, with the canner in hot pursuit.
Davy Jones's Locker turns out to be a sea-floor boarding house, with Davy Jones its harassed manager, and Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Long John Silver, and Midshipman Easy among his troublesome boarders. Davy and the pirates, mad for pumpkin pies, want to learn Joe's secret, or failing that, to butcher him into pies. But since his transformation into a pumpkinhead, Joe can no longer remember his secret. Joe manages to escape to Mother Carey's coral palace, but the pirates lure him back into their clutches. Mother Carey appeals to Neptune, king of the sea, for intervention. Neptune forces a resolution to the trouble.
The Corn Dodger's magic is needed to reverse the spell on poor Joe; but by this time the canner has captured the Dodger and taken him to his canning factory in Bermuda. The entire party repairs to that island. The pirates find and rescue the Dodger; Joe's pumpkin head is obtained, and the spell is successfully reversed. Joe remembers his pumpkin-growing secret, and bestows it upon the world; pumpkin pies for everybody. The children happily return to Vermont.
There is no pearl in the book, other than the little girl of that name; its title should correctly read, Pearl and the Pumpkin.
The book is largely free of the racial and ethnic stereotypes, common a century ago, that offend modern tastes and standards — since the authors set their story in lily-white WASP Vermont. Chapter 21 features a picture of a grinning black Bermudan kitchen servant, which some captious readers might find offensive. Contemporary sensibilities might also blanche at the minor character of "Johnny Farnum, the village fat boy."
A "dummy" or mock-up of Pearl and Pumpkin exists in the Kerlan Collection of Children's Literature at the University of Minnesota. The dummy displays Denslow's development of the book's melding of text, illustrations, and design elements.
The artist supplied the text with sixteen full-page, full-color plates, plus dozens of other illustrations — black and white, one color (orange), and two color (blue and orange) images. (The strongly predominant orange is in keeping with the story's pumpkin theme.) Some of his creations are clever — like a mermaid who is an actual maid, with a black uniform and a frilly cap and apron.
Though their novel is set in landlocked Vermont, the authors use abundant nautical folklore in their tale — Davy Jones et al. In the undersea domain, sharks serve as mounts for riding, and dolphins carry messages like telegraph boys.
In sea lore, Mother Carey is a malevolent figure; her "chickens" are the storm petrels that supposedly herald bad weather at sea. West and Denslow convert her into a benign fairy-godmother figure, comparable to Baum's Glinda the Good or Gibson's Zauberlinda. Their version of Mother Carey has an accompanying cohort of eight fairy maidens, whom she calls her Chickens.
The authors' use of the Ancient Mariner as their villain shows how familiar Coleridge's poem had become through the school curriculum of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. The Mariner carries with him his crossbow and albatross, though Denslow pictures him as a bearded little old man in a "sou'wester" hat, raingear, and rubber boots, like a modern fisherman.
Denslow hoped to replicate the popular success of Wonderful Wizard, including a dramatic adaptation for the stage. Consistent with this goal was his choice of a collaborator: Paul West (1871–1918) was a journalist and story writer, but also a song lyricist. West composed the lyrics to the planned show, to melodies penned by composer John Walter Bratton (1867–1947). The book was published in October 1904. The stage play followed in 1905 — but was not a hit.
The play suffered from a confused and convoluted plot. In both play and novel, the authors make the mistake of turning their protagonist into a figure of grotesquery and a passive victim.